Saturday, May 10, 2008

Gun control and Jewish values

We've said it before here: one of the strangest features of American Jewish politics is its embarrassment about self-interest. I don't exactly mean its liberalism. Any religious minority in a liberal democracy finds itself exceptionally in tune with the need for safeguarding religious and other civil freedoms.

What I do mean is the frequent inability to say the obvious, steer clear of political correctness, and think about the things Kavanna wrote about a few days ago here about the right of self-defense. Although there are nuances in how far people can go and avoid taking the law into their hands, it's not a hard-to-understand principle. But ever since the breakdown of liberalism in the 1960s, gun control (banning guns, actually) has become another one of those quixotic causes that liberals have taken up as a vehicle for self-flagellation. It's not as if there's strong evidence that it works: law-abiding people obey gun control laws, and criminals don't. Countries with gun control laws do not have consistently lower rates of violent crime. But such rational considerations obstruct our view of the motives of gun control advocates: it's about guilt and becoming helpless in order to assuage that guilt. It sometimes results in pretty astounding rationalizing, such as quoting the Ten Commandments (which forbid murder, not self-defense) in debates over the issue. Judaism is not about turning the other check, BTW: that's a different religion.

There are many self-identified liberal causes (like gay marriage) that stand or fall on their own merits. The problem with American Jewish politics is taking over those causes and trying to make "Jewish values" out of them. What results is sometimes misguided and often distorted. Although it's based on obligations, not rights, Jewish law has always recognized a right of self-defense. (See this lucid discussion, which uses the classical exegesis of the 11th century commentator Rashi. He carefully distinguishes self-defense from both murder and judicial punishment and limits the use of deadly force to deadly situations.) Although I don't own a firearm myself, it's perfectly understandable to me why people without reliable police protection would want to be able to protect themselves. In the US, that includes people living in rural areas, but also residents of inner cities. It doesn't mean everyone has to own a gun or even know how to use one. The days of a citizen militia are long past.

The real source of the distorted thinking is the hundreds of years of diaspora Jewish vulnerability and belief in the "good czar." Actually, a lot of modern Jewish politics can be understood this way. Only under oppressive and discriminatory rule by Christians and Muslims were Jews gradually disarmed and reduced to helplessness. We all know how that ended.

It's best to look at the situation in Israel, where personal firearms are not unusual. The Israeli approach - gun ownership common, but highly regulated - is probably the closest thing to real "Jewish values" on this question. Of course, there's a larger context: guns don't kill people; people kill people. And that is why there is so much in Jewish tradition about keeping the negative side of human nature in check. Someone might decide to use force against someone else, and that someone else might need to defend himself. But violence foreseen and prevented is better than violence acted out - the "Jewish way" in the fullest sense.

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